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The spectacular ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’

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There’s nothing quite like having your expectations greatly exceeded – particularly when they were high to begin with. It’s a rare thing, to experience a piece of culture – a movie, a book, a play – anticipating excellence, only to discover that you vastly underestimated the possibilities.

And it just happened. With “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

This movie offers up a story boldly told, one filled with humor and heart and more web-slinging than you ever dared dream. Smart and beautifully rendered, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” takes full advantage of the benefits derived from working in the animated realm, packed with vivid colors and action unfettered by “realism.”

It’s not just a great comic book movie – it might be one of the best.

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, “The Pretenders”) is a teenager living in a Brooklyn similar to, but not exactly like our own. He’s got typical teenager problems – he feels out of place at his new, high-pressure magnet school. His dad Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Henry, “Widows”) – a police officer – pushes him hard. His primary confidant is his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”), but Aaron and Jefferson don’t get along.

But things change fast for Miles. It all starts when he’s bitten by a spider while creating some graffiti in the subway tunnels. He starts to manifest spider powers, powers he doesn’t understand; they cause problems due to his inability to control them. And when he returns to the scene, he inadvertently stumbles onto a plot by the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber, TV’s “Ray Donovan”) to use a particle accelerator to open portals to parallel universes; the device could potentially open a black hole beneath the city, killing millions.

When Miles is tasked with disabling the accelerator, he’s initially at a loss. But he soon discovers that the accelerator’s initial malfunction has accidentally brought Spider-People from a number of different universes into his own. There’s the older, jaded Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson, “Tag”), whose personal life has collapsed under the weight of the mask (and who Miles hopes will school him in how to Spider-Man). And there’s Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld, “Pitch Perfect 3”), the new girl at Miles’s school who happens to be the Spider-Woman of her universe.

It’s when they seek out Aunt May (Lily Tomlin, TV’s “Frankie and Grace”) that things get REALLY weird, though. It seems that some other Spider-types have shown up as well. Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, “Mandy”), a 1930s-style Spider-Man whose every word is hard-boiled and who is literally in black and white. Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn, “Like Father”), a young girl from a far-future version of New York whose best friend and hero partner is a giant spider robot. And last but not least, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney, TV’s “Big Mouth”), a spider-powered pig from a funny animal universe.

(Note: One of the best running gags in this movie is the way it handles origin stories. Every one of these spider-folks gets his or her story told, but it is handled in a deft and frankly hilarious way. It’s a wonderful piece of meta-commentary that also works in the moment.)

It’s up to this group of spider-powered misfits to figure out how to stop the Kingpin from tearing the fabric of space-time apart … and find their way home in the process.

I meant what I said earlier – this is one of the best comic book movies I’ve ever seen. Never before has a movie so adroitly replicated onscreen the experience of reading a comic book. The freewheeling stylistic choices. The sharp, quippy dialogue. The occasional moment of unabashed sentimentality. It’s all there, hearkening back to what it felt like to be a 10-year-old who was held in absolute thrall by the adventures (and the flaws) of a wall-crawling superhero.

We’ll start with the stunning visuals. This movie embraced the flexibility of animation in a magnificent way. The filmmakers weren’t bound by the notion of uniformity; they switched styles whenever they saw fit, allowing the anime look of Peni to coexist alongside the Looney Tunes-esque take on Spider-Ham while both slotted easily into the more realistically rendered world of Miles. Vastly different sizes and shapes and scales all operating hand-in-hand, embracing and employing the various visual cues that make comic books such a unique art form. The action set pieces are sublime, broad and soaring; there are at least a couple that will take your breath away. There are so many moments that feel like they were lifted straight from the pages of a comic.

The narrative is just as compelling as the aesthetic; the depth of storytelling here isn’t what you might expect from an animated superhero movie. There’s actual emotional heft here, on a number of fronts – macro and micro, if you will. All that, plus a lot of solid banter and some legitimately good jokes.

And then there’s the matter of the vocal cast. Literally everyone in this cast is a standout. Moore strikes just the right tone as Miles. Johnson is a home run as the aged, jaded Spider-Man. Cage is outright awesome, as is Mulaney – the two of them are easily the stars of the supporting cast. Steinfeld is sharp. Henry and Ali are fantastic, as is Schreiber. Lily Tomlin is here, for Pete’s sake. And that doesn’t even get into the folks I haven’t mentioned yet – Kathryn Hahn and Zoe Kravitz and Natalie Morales and Chris Pine and on and on. A legitimately incredible ensemble.

I knew “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was going to be good; I didn’t realize it was going to be great. But it is. It’s a Spider-Man comic brought to life. It is sensational. It is amazing.

It is … spectacular.

[5 out of 5]

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